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Scotland in space – spaceports and satellite manufacturing

Scotty space industry - Holyrood

Scotland in space – spaceports and satellite manufacturing

“If you want a spaceship engineer, you better make him a Scotsman,” Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was told when auditioning for the role of the hardest working mechanic in the universe.

Fifty years after Scotty threw his ‘haggis into the fire’ to give Captain Kirk more power than the starship Enterprise could handle, Roddenberry’s future gazing has proved remarkably prescient.

Scotland now manufactures more satellites than anywhere outside of the United States and it will soon be home to Europe’s first spaceport – a project that actually involves an Enterprise leader called Kirk. 

Roy Kirk, spaceport project director at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, is overseeing the construction of the £17m spaceport on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, situated between Tongue and Durness.

The abundance of engineering and science talent in Scotland – descendants of the early telecoms pioneers like Maxwell, Bell and Baird, the component manufacturers of Silicon Glen and the physicists of Dounreay – is one of the reasons the UK Space Agency selected Sutherland out of 26 bids for the first UK spaceport.

Scotland specialises in building CubeSats, small devices about the size of a whisky bottle which can be used for a range of applications like Earth observation, quantum encryption, weather forecasting, shipping, anti-piracy and global positioning.

Clyde Space launched Scotland’s first ever satellite, UKube-1, in 2014, sparking an unprecedented period of growth, and the firm has ambitions to manufacture hundreds of satellites a month that could be sold off-the-shelf at a fraction of the current price.

The company shares an office complex – appropriately called SkyPark – with US firm Spire Global, which is currently churning out around one satellite a week.

“Spire is able to make more satellites here in Glasgow than anywhere else outside of the US because we are completely vertically integrated,” said Joel Spark, lead engineer at Spire.

“We have an in-house engineering team, and we have all in-house facilities for manufacturing.

“We’ve spent about £20 million building this facility here in Glasgow and hiring local talent. This is our single largest office and we do all of our satellite manufacturing here. There’s a really great pool of talent for, particularly, electronics manufacturing that we were able to tap into.”

Spark said the company had benefited from a high-skilled workforce already in place from the days of the dotcom boom.

“Silicon Glen was where a lot of handset manufacturing took place, small electronic devices with radio technology, and that is very similar to what we are doing so we were able to tap into that skillset,” he said.

Roy Kirk says the proximity to these burgeoning satellite makers, plus an abundance of local engineering talent, was Sutherland’s trump card in securing the funding for the first UK spaceport.

“We are fortunate that we have got Dounreay on our doorstep so access to engineers and skilled people was very significant for us,” he said.

“We also have a mainland location which helps with logistics. Crucially for us, we have the support and partnership of companies like Lockheed Martin, one of the biggest space companies in the world, and Orbex, which is a really interesting, innovative British company.

“We’ve done some economic assessment and we believe that the first flight should be around 2021. By 2023, we believe there will be around 40 local jobs in and around the spaceport and about 400 jobs in the region as supply chain jobs.”

The lack of spaceport experience in Scotland means the first managers will probably have to be hired internationally, but HIE hopes to train local staff to eventually take over senior roles. Scotland’s satellite makers will also have new responsibilities onsite to do final testing and make sure the devices are safely loaded onto the rocket.

HIE is also watching the political wrangling over the European global position system Galileo very closely.

Britain played a major role in developing Galileo, an alternative to the US’s GPS, but Brussels has now said it will deny the UK access to Galileo signals after Brexit, citing legal issues about sharing sensitive security information with a non-member state.

The UK is now working on its own GPS system and could claim around £1bn compensation from Brussels as part of the Brexit negotiations for its exclusion from Galileo.

Britain will invest £92m for an 18-month-long study into an alternative UK programme – which will undoubtedly require new satellites.

Kirk said: “The outcomes are not yet certain, but if it means extra UK capacity for launch, that would be particularly helpful for us.

“On the wider Brexit implications, there is no suggestion that the UK link with ESA (European Space Agency) will be broken after Brexit. We very much want to continue working with our European partners – notwithstanding Galileo – and it’s worth noting that this is not only the first Scottish spaceport, it’s actually the first spaceport in Europe.

“A lot of our relationships will be with the US and while there are a few components in Europe, which we want to secure to our greatest advantage, we don’t think Brexit will be a significant barrier in our development.

“We also don’t know how freedom of movement is going to operate after Brexit, but we do expect some really talented people from Europe will want to work here. Whatever happens after Brexit, my view is that these people will definitely be regarded as key personnel so I don’t think the permit process will be onerous for us.”

Kirk said the spaceport is also insulated from any further constitutional change, such as a future vote for Scottish independence, as it will be required to stand on its own feet after 2021 when UK Space Agency startup funding is spent.

Conservative MP David Morris, chairman of the informal Parliamentary Space Committee, claimed the spaceport would be disqualified from launching US ballistic missions due to strict US arms controls if Scotland left the UK.

Kirk said: “People will be coming to this spaceport not because it is in Scotland, or in the UK, or even in Europe, they will be coming to it because it’s the best commercial option. In my view, whatever politics transpires, we would see the commercial success of the spaceport as being the main focus of attention.

“We now have a grant offer which has been signed by the UK Government to do this project, which is funded against a series of milestones, and I think it would be difficult to rescind that offer.

“The grant offer from the UK lasts until 2021 and I am confident the UK Space Agency will help us and support us in taking the project forward.”

William Hosack, chief executive of Orbital Micro Systems (OMS), which recently entered a partnership with Edinburgh University, said the new Scottish launchpad will be “amazing” for the business.

“We are the pathfinder mission for that so we’re getting a ride into space,” he said.

“In the longer term, having a launch capability in the UK is going to be invaluable. Every time you move your hardware around it incurs cost and could incur damage. To be honest, the cost savings are going to be a huge advantage for us.

“As with any new linchpin, you will have lots of ancillary industries moving in around it so it’s absolutely going to drive new subsystem development and mission operation companies.”

OMS builds miniaturised instruments for satellites and data support for projects which rely on information collected from space.

It is currently working with Clyde Space to put weather observation technology into space, and also cites Scotland’s long history of electronic innovation as a key part of the attraction for global space companies.

“There is a history of capabilities in Scotland in electrical and mechanical engineering,” he said.

“It surprises me that people are surprised that a satellite company would pop up in Glasgow, because you’ve got BAE, you’ve got Lockheed, as well as multiple military and government designers which lends itself well to transition into space.

“The capabilities have always been there, but because this is a new market there is a lot of space for new and creative thinking. You can build the industry around the capabilities in Scotland – and Glasgow was the top of our list.”

He also believes the spaceport is insulated from constitutional change as most of the small satellite expertise and supply chain is in the US, so there will be very little reason to look east, while the Galileo row also opens up opportunities for his company.

“We have done some initial analysis to look at what you can do with CubeSat and small satellites for global navigation satellite systems (GNSS),” he said.

“Just as it’s reducing the cost by 1,000-fold for Earth observation, we think we can do something similar for GNSS, so there is absolutely an opportunity to develop a new way to do GNSS which is more robust than the current system.

“I’m excited to be engaged in it, because when you drive around Glasgow, you can currently see your map spinning round in a circle because it’s lost its GPS lock, so we’ll definitely be improving the lock.

“In some ways, there’s a little bit of sovereignty here that the UK needs to take care of, and we hope to be part of that. The US is the key partner and anything that is necessary or needed that is not currently available in the supply chain in the UK is going to be easily available out of the US.

“To be honest, if you were to compare the support capabilities of mainland Europe versus the US for space, and particularly small satellites, it is hands down the US.

“We are also based in Boulder, Colorado, and that is the epicentre for small space development. We’ve got three bus providers right in our home town, we have the ability to spin all of the boards that are required for miniaturisation, so we don’t see the supply chain being affected by Brexit.”

The commercialisation of space is also opening up opportunities for small local startups to get in on the act.

AlbaOrbital is preparing to launch its first satellite, Unicorn1, which will be strapped to a larger payload and ejected from a spring-loaded launcher like a jack in the box.

Tom Walkinshaw, CEO of Alba Orbital, has been inspired by the success of Elon Musk, the mercurial chief executive of SpaceX who has revolutionised the private space industry and has an unapologetic ambition to beat NASA to Mars.

Musk’s image looms large in AlbaOrbital’s unassuming office on the south of the River Clyde, including one of his most famous quotes on the conference room door: “When something is important enough, you do it, even when the odds are not in your favour.”

Fledgling satellite firm Orbital Access recently set up shop at Prestwick Airport, near Glasgow, and UK rocket maker Skyrora has bought facilities in Edinburgh and Glasgow in anticipation of Prestwick’s transformation into a spaceport.

The UK Space Agency’s decision to provide startup funding for a wide array of projects, rather than just focusing on a single UK spaceport, means Prestwick still has the opportunity to get into the space business.

Prestwick’s extra long runway makes it a good contender to become a horizontal launchpad, which involves strapping a space-bound payload onto a conventional aircraft and flying it to a high altitude where the Earth’s gravitational pull is weaker, meaning the payload requires less fuel to blast into orbit.

Space might be very, very big but the future of space exploration is expected to be done by small satellites similar to those currently being built in places like Glasgow.

Astrophysicists believe that future space telescopes won’t be huge satellites the size of a bus, like Hubble, but a series of synchronised small satellites which can create a virtual lens much bigger than anything that can be fitted onto a single satellite.

Small satellites might do more than just look at the stars, they might boldly go where no man is ever likely to go – if our current understanding of physics is sound – and actually visit a star.

A science collaboration called The Breakthrough Initiatives, launched in 2015 by the late Stephen Hawking, Russian tycoon Yuri Milner and others, is developing a project called Starshot which involves sending 3.5 centimetre satellites, weighing just four grams each, to Earth’s nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri. 

It would take a conventional spacecraft tens-of-thousands of years to make the 4.3 light year trip to Alpha Centauri, but these tiny ‘sprites’ could do it in just 20 years by using laser light propulsion which can accelerate them to a fifth of the speed of light, meaning the sprites will literally be ‘beamed up’ to another star.

Ultimately, future spacecraft could be built from little more than piles of dust as 3D printing technology improves.

Edinburgh students are working on designs for a space station which grows from a kernel of small modules by scooping up space debris and refabricating it into additional modules using a 3D printer in orbit.

Matjaz Vidmar, an astrophysicist at the University of Edinburgh and at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, said: “You could actually do 3D manufacturing and use old satellites – space junk – to rebuild new probes and send them out to do exploration and, why not send some tourists up there as well and give us some money.

“This is some work that we have tasked our students to do, trying to model a space station out of relatively cheap inflatable modules that an American company called Bigelow is producing, putting them together and modelling a space station, and finding out what happens when you launch those space stations into a particularly dense debris environment in Earth’s orbit.”

He added: “We’ve got the Higgs Centre for Innovation, a new business incubator and business innovation facility at the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, opening in a couple of weeks’ time, and we already have small companies bidding to be part of this space incubator trying to get us to develop more companies and enrich that ecosystem, getting satellites from Scotland.” 

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